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The American gothic of Gordon Parks

A new exhibition in Boston explores a personal photo essay about American segregation

George Pendle | January 20th 2015

In 1950, the Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, to create a photo essay on segregation in American schools. Parks was the only African-American photographer on the staff at Life and he was no stranger to the subject. The youngest of 15 children born to a tenant farmer and a maid, he had attended the segregated Plaza School, where an all-black student body had been taught by an all-black faculty. For the young Parks this had seemed quite normal, as had the black Main Street that existed on one side of the railroad tracks and the white Main Street that existed on the other. But by 1950 this forced separation was starting to splinter and Kansas was at the centre of a growing national debate over segregation: in 1954 the Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, would order schools to desegregate, kick-starting the civil-rights revolution.

Parks’ idea was to personalise the story of segregation by tracking down his former classmates from the Plaza School. The photographs he took are now on view in a precise and powerful show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. By the time he began work on the project, many of them had left Fort Scott and so his commission became a quest that followed the Great Migration of African-Americans out of the rural southern states to the urban Midwest. In St Louis, Chicago and Detroit, Parks caught up with and photographed his old schoolmates in an almost identical manner. He would stand them shoulder to shoulder with their spouses or children, with their apartment blocks or houses behind them (above). This was by no means incidental. In fact this seemingly simple composition held within it a powerful message.

At the time, Life was the most popular news magazine in the United States. It had a weekly readership of some 20m, drawn primarily from the urban and suburban white middle classes. Parks realised that in telling his story he would have to counter many of the unfavourable preconceptions that the magazine's readers would have about African-Americans. He needed to normalise his subjects in the eyes of his audience. But how? His answer was to appropriate what might have been the United States’ most beloved artwork at the time—Grant Woods’ “American Gothic” (1930). In Woods’ original painting a gaunt, bespectacled farmer holding a pitchfork stands shoulder to shoulder with a woman in an apron. Both look grimly out of the picture. In the background sits a small white clapboard house with an ornate Gothic window. To the majority of Americans this image spoke of a pioneer spirit and grit in the face of the Great Depression. Parks chose to replicate this painting’s composition in the photographs of his schoolfriends not as a pastiche or satire, but as a subliminal signal of normalcy, a connotation of Americanness.

He had, in fact, quoted Woods’ painting in one of his earliest photographs from 1942. In “American Gothic, Washington DC” he had photographed a charwoman in the Farm Security Administration building where he worked at the time, holding up a mop in front of the American flag. It was a polemical piece that criticised a deeply segregated city, but Parks’ quotation of the painting in his Fort Scott photographs was softer and less controversial. He simply wanted to show his classmates as couples defined by something other than the colour of their skin, and as modern American pioneers, travelling north from their hometown, foreheads creased with worry (like the Iowa farmers of Woods’ image) but similarly united in their pursuit of the fundamental American rights of life, liberty and property. It was not just an aesthetic equivalence that Parks was drawing, but a moral one too.

He supplemented these portraits with depictions of his schoolmates and their families going to church, saying grace before a meal or playing pianos—an expensive status symbol—in order to further shorten the distance between them and Life’s readership. But he didn't sugarcoat his story. Some of his classmates had been successful—we see one of them smoking a pipe on the porch of his house with his family, the epitome of suburban content. But others had fallen on hard times. Parks can’t hide the suffering in one of his old schoolmates’ eyes as she stares out of the window of her transient hotel while her abusive husband lies on a bed next to her (above). Shortly after the picture was taken he would rob Parks of his money. By mixing the good and the bad in equal measure Parks was trying to show that his classmates suffered the same everyday tragedies and worried about the same things—house payments, schools for their children—that white people did. A further emotional heft is added to this show by the painstaking curation of Karen Haas, who has found the yearbook photos of Parks' subjects and displayed them next to the portraits. Their chosen mottos (“To be young forever; to be a Mrs.”, “Tee hee, tee ho, tee hee, ha hum; Jolly, good natured, full of fun”) are as optimistic and silly as those of any young person of any colour.

As it was the feature never ran in Life. It appears to have been bumped to one side as more important news events thrust themselves into the magazine's pages. Parks would go on to become a composer, a poet, a novelist and the first African-American to direct a Hollywood studio film (as well as the ground-breaking black action movie “Shaft” in 1971). But despite these achievements and an increasingly globe-trotting life, it was to Fort Scott that he felt consistently drawn: “This small town into which I was born,/has, for me, grown into the largest,/and most important city in the universe./Fort Scott is not as tall, or heralded as New York, Paris or London—/or other places my feet have roamed,/but it is home.”

Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to September 13th

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